Wednesday, November 8, 2000
Updated: September 13, 6:09 PM ET
It's Jeet's world; we just live in it
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
This past summer, on June 26, Road Dog called me and said, "Yo R-Dub, let's do the double-dip today: Yanks-Mets, first at Shea, then at the Stadium. You down?"
Well, I wasn't too keen on going to a doubleheader, even a unique one; the games are just way too slow these days. But this was a chance for a brief case study of Jeet. You all know Jeet. Derek Sanderson Jeter? The Yankee in the short field?
I wanted to observe him up close, in his element, see if he'd help me make sense of things. Jeet can take his game to a level of art, at times. I study forms, including the form of the performing athlete, where energy precisely meets need. Plus, Road Dog, a friend who follows sports the way the Grim Reaper follows all life, said I had to go.
I told Road Dog, "OK," and said I'd bring the sunflower seeds and bottled water.
The Yankees won Game 1 at Shea. Jeet struck out looking twice.
I muttered to Road Dog, "He even looks good taking called-strike-three."
The Yankees won Game 2 at the Stadium that evening. Jeet got punched out again, looking. Beat what happened to Piazza, who got beaned by Clemens, as Yankee fans screamed Piazza was jaking it. Me and Road Dog went down into the sancto sanctorum of the Yankee clubhouse, spoke to Doc Gooden, spoke to Bernie, spoke to Coney, to Joe T., to Willie Randolph. Jeet came over. He looked at us squarely, gamely, unwarily, unafraid. Clue. Jeet is aware of precisely what is going on around him at all times. Many professional ballplayers are not. They're oblivious to nuance. They figure, what the ..., they're young, they've got cheese, as far as you're concerned, you can stick around, if you know how to bend with the breeze, to shapeshift, coddle, god 'em up, to endure their need and greed for attention, then grin as if you like it.
Jeet smiled when we said it was his world, but then he also kept smiling when we asked if it bothered him, getting punched out looking three times in one day like that. "Nah," he said. "Well, not really. First game, the ump was giving Doc the same pitch. So, fine. I'm not gonna argue that. Doc needs to get that pitch now. We won, didn't we? That's all I'm about. Hey, you know my birthday party's tonight." He named a club in midtown Manhattan, and handed me and Road Dog two invites.
"You're hooked up," Jeet said. "Come join me. You'll find it very interesting."
Now if, say, Paulie O'Neill got punched out three times looking in a doubleheader at age 26, he would have turned over every table at his own birthday party. And we've all seen what New York can do to, say, an Ed Whitson, or Knobby's throwing. We've seen what the Big Tent can do to mortal man.
But Jeet is something else, He warms to the enormity of it all. I was thinking that as we drove up to the club where Jeet's birthday party was held. A line of fine honeys snaked around the block, all heights, sizes, colors, their commonality being (1) they were all 9s, and (2) they were all there for Jeet. If a woman wasn't a 9, she knew better than to get on that line. Each was there on the off-chance Jeet might look her way, nod at her, give her the high sign, crook a finger, lift an eyebrow, and she might
get a two-day pass into Jeet's world, or perhaps even become Mrs. Jeet. No harm in dreaming.
Jeet has got a girl, true enough, and that girl labors under the title of Miss Universe, true enough, but none of that was stopping any of those 9s that night -- or any night. Believe it. Just between me, you and Road Dog, some of those women were 10s. But not in Jeet's world. Jeet is the only 10 in his world. There's Jeet, and then there's a bunch of 9s.
I thought on this later. Situation like that, bunch of 9s and 10s at your beck and call, Miss Universe riding shotgun, Mariah Carey on the slush pile -- all that might tend to distract your average young dude from doing his best work at the age of 26. Well, it might've distracted me, anyway. Maybe you too? Jeet acted like it was all part of the world, his world -- it was mundane, just another thing to deal with, like dead-fish change-ups, back-door sliders, hard cheese, scroogies and pitchers throwing at your dome. This was part of it too. He kept on playing with concentration, panache, je na sais qua, duende, with a class only the most magnificent players possess.
Appreciate what you're seeing when you watch Jeet, even in the day-to-day grind.
We're talking about a shortstop who is 26 years old -- the age when a good many fine major-leaguers first make it up to the Show to stay -- who has already won
three straight World Series championships, and four of the last five, all while playing in the same league with another shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, who's 40-40, who can hit clean-up for you, .320, 44 bombs/130 ribs, average good year, who stands to pull down $20-25 mil a year as a free agent.
Yet A-Rod has no shot of being the best shortstop of this era. "It's not a matter of my opinion," I muttered to Road Dog after he told me that Reggie Jackson said it
was close, but that he might have to take A-Rod. "Of course Reggie is going to pick the guy with the most power. But the acid test is this. If they both were on the same team, who would play in the short field? No question. Jeet. A-Rod would be over at third base, and liking it. Brosius? Brosius would be in Milwaukee."
Jeet plays in the same league as Boston's Nomar Garciaparra, who hits .360 falling out of bed, might hit .400 one day, 28 bombs/125 ribs his regular fare. And Nomar has to look up at Jeet, has to squint and shade his eyes just to see him way up there overhead.
The ones who don't look up at Jeet but who he looks dead-level in the eye are those Yankee legends who also wore a single digit number. Jeet fits between No. 1, Billy Martin, and No. 3, Babe Ruth. (No. 4 is Lou Gehrig, No. 5 is Joe DiMaggio, No. 6 is reserved for the Yankee proletariat, everyYank, from Clete Boyer to Roy White, No. 7 is the Mick, No. 8 is Yogi, No. 9 is Maris.) These are Jeet's peers. Give the Yankees credit. They knew. They knew all along. They gave him No. 2 and got out of his way.
The other thing to understand about Jeet's world is this rarity of American rarities:
Everybody Can Love Jeet Unconditionally.
"Why is that?" Road Dog asked me as we watched Jeet commandeer Shea, make it over into his world in the final three games of the 2000 World Series. All
Derek Jeter's New York Yankees have done over their last 18 World Series games is go 17-1. That's, like, .944 ball. Jeet's hit safely in, what, the last 14 of
those games, and scored or driven in, what, 25 percent of Yankee runs in that span?
That's a higher league.
So when Road Dog asked me why everybody could love Jeet so unconditionally, I answered him without really thinking about it, on instinct, intuition, experience, and from within the curious madness that comes with having lived through the second half of the 20th century: "Dog, everybody loves Jeet because he's Half-Human," I said.
My speculation amused Road Dog. In fact, he laughed doubled-over for five minutes.
See, Jeet's mom Dorothy is "white," and his dad Charles is "black," in the unfortunate shorthand by which Americans are accustomed to describing ourselves. These are unforgiving aliases, and they can and do often color who we root for -- and against -- and how we root for them. Whether this is sad or not, I don't know.
But with Jeet, everybody gets some. He has that easy glide, that knowing gait afield that people often take for "black" style and athletic grace. But it's actually the grace of the trained performer who possesses high abilities, and knows it. Cal Ripken Jr. had it. R. Alomar has it. DiMaggio had it. Mays, goes without saying. Andruw and Chipper Jones have it. A-Rod. Barry Bonds, Junior Griffey have it. Whatever color wrappers they come in, whatever attitudes that might come along with that, damn few have it afield like they do. With Jeet, the wrapper looks like his mother, at least in the face -- the light eyes, the keen features ... everybody gets a slice of some Jeet.
When I said Jeet was Half-Human, I meant no matter if you are black or white, Jeet belongs to you, the way DiMag belonged to the paisans, the way Mays
belonged to the brothers, the way Mantle belonged to the redneck whicker-bill country boys, the way Greenberg belonged to the Jews, the way Clemente
belonged to the Puerto Ricans. Jeet belongs to everybody that way. He's the Half-Human.
Each time I said it, no matter how I said it, Road Dog laughed some more.
Finally, after he caught his breath, Road Dog asked me, "Which is the human half?"
I grinned at Road Dog and beckoned for beer dude. "Well, whichever half it is, it ain't the half that plays the short field for the Yankees," I said. "That half is superhuman."
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."